Remembering Joe Green: The Life & Art of Giuseppe Verdi
One of the Bard of Avon’s biggest fans was none other the Father of Italian Opera, Giuseppe Verdi
The “Brindisi” or Drinking Song from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Macbeth”
Even the Maestro, himself, can be a star struck fan of artistic greatness. In fact, Giuseppe Verdi was so thoroughly well versed in this man’s artistry it’s not a stretch to say the Italian composer may very well have been one of his biggest admirers.
This hyper-fandom is evidenced by the Maestro not only having read each and every one of this man’s numerous works, he had done so repeatedly. This famed personality was so revered by the composer, a special term of endearment was reserved for him whenever Verdi used the word “Pappa”. So highly regarded was this man’s artistic genius, Giuseppe Verdi took four of his complete works and set them each to music.
I can only be referring to the man whom many consider to be the greatest writer of the English language and whose plays are as timely today as when they were when originally written 500 years ago – the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.
Verdi took 4 of Shakespeare’s plays and set them in operatic form with one being the fusion of 2 of the Bard’s creations written for the theatrical stage: Macbeth, Falstaff (an operatic combination of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV), and Othello (in Italian, Otello).
Much has been written about the latter two. Composed at the twilight of his life when the Maestro was 80 years old, Falstaff is the last of Verdi’s creations. His only comedy, (actually his only successful comedy, Verdi tried his hand making with the musical yuk-yuks with his 2nd opera that ended up a complete flop) is seen by many music scholars as a culmination of the Maestro’s music genius and amassed artistic experiences as well as a highly personalized Swan Song which bids farewell to a career spanning many decades that traversed through generations.
Otello is the musical version of Shakespeare’s play of the same name but without the letter “H”. Whereas most renditions of classic works usually detract from their source, many agree that Verdi’s masterpiece actually accentuates the Bard’s original efforts. The opera departs from the play with certain choice scenes, its music making the story of the passion filled Moor destroyed by “the green eyed monster” a fuller, richer theatrical experience, overall. Critics and fans alike state that what the opera lacks in original poetry or text is resolved by Verdi’s sublime music.
Which leaves us with the Scottish Play.
After Ballo, Macbeth is my 2nd favorite Verdi opera with the two pieces making up my top 5 favorite musical works of all time. Plus, I’ll take a Shakespearean remake that’s top heavy on the forces of the diabolical complete with blood covered ghosts rising from the grave to seek vengeance among the living any day of the week, thank you very much.
I love every note of this opera. Although written relatively early in his career, Verdi composed Macbeth with an economy of means where not a minute is wasted in making the listener either thoroughly horrified or downright petrified. To give just one example among many, in Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene, where in the play the character says her famous somnambular phrase of “Out, out damned spot!”, Verdi has the evil Queen’s first sleep filled mumblings match her sense of guilt filled urgency with Lady M’s sung entrance being just 2 dread filled words “Una Macchia” – A spot.
When the singer like no other, Shirley Verrett passed away in 2010, I wrote an article recalling my memories of being fortunate enough to hear her voice live and recounting meeting the woman who embodied the best connotations associated with the word “Diva”. The piece was entitled, “The Convergence of Divine Opposites: Shirley Verrett, Singer & Gemini”.
Along with discussing how Ms. Verrett’s artistry was pivotal with my evolutionary growth as both a singer and a human being, the article also retells the story of Shirley’s biggest operatic triumph which eventually became one of her signature roles – Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth. To quote that piece:
Voi Siete Demente?
By far, Shirley Verrett’s greatest transitional triumph into the soprano repertoire was a role both admired and feared for its dualistic difficulties of vocal production and dramatic display – Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s operatic homage to the “Scottish play”, Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the epitome of duality twistedly transformed for the self serving purposes of murderous manipulation. The psyche of Macbeth’s cheerleading-for-murder spouse can at any given time juxtaposingly split: in public, she can rouse the sympathies of her people in a drinking song, while in private, she can rouse her mate into killing not only his loyal colleague but the victim’s young children as well. In the opera’s Great Hall scene where Macbeth, now King of Scotland asks his Queen to lead her people into a drinking toast, Verrett’s voice beams with enthusiasm. My favorite line of the opera, (actually it’s my favorite only when Shirley does it) occurs directly following her husband’s seizure-like fit of panic after Macbeth sees the specter of his newly murdered rival Banquo occupying his seat at the great feast. Horrified and mortified her spouse has just had a complete mental breakdown in front of a full house, Lady Macbeth approaches her sweatily prostrate partner in crime and asks him, “Voi Siete Demente?” “Are you demented?”
In the 1979 Deutsche Grammaphone studio recording, Verrett makes this inquiry under her breath but with a “Just you wait til I get you alone” intensity. She literally hisses at her husband with a hushed tone of seething, vitriolic rage for making a mentally questionable display of himself in public.
Shirley’s performances in the operatic version of the Scottish play made audiences delirious with her chameleon like dramatic abilities displaying Lady Macbeth’s power-starved psyche from many different angles. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Verdi’s homeland of Italy. Verrett’s Lady Macbeth was so well received at La Scala, the Milanese dubbed her with their own triumphant title of dualistic distinction, “La Nera Callas“, “The Black Callas”.
More than enough said.
Below: In the longest theatrical cape known to Man, Shirley Verrett sings her celebrated 1975 interpretation of Lady Macbeth from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” from the Maestro’s hometown opera house of Milan’s La Scala.
*Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.